Kathleen A. Flynn is a copy editor at The New York Times. Her debut novel, “The Jane Austen Project,” will be released May 2. In this interview, conducted by email, Flynn discusses how she researched and wrote the book, and how it was edited. (Photo by Bryan Thomas, 2016)
Q. How did you get the idea for “The Jane Austen Project”?
A. It came to me in a flash, not everything, but the main idea: a time-traveling physician sent on a mission to Jane Austen, a terrible price for achieving an amazing thing. I felt chills go down my spine. I thought, I can totally do this! For some reason I never stopped believing that.
But no idea comes from nowhere. It had to do with what I was reading at the time: the Aubrey/Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian (“Master and Commander,” etc.) about a British naval officer during the Napoleonic wars and his friend, a doctor. These are like Jane Austen novels, except with sea battles – in their wit and subtlety, their depiction of human nature – and of course they take place in her time. Two of Austen’s brothers were captains in the British Navy and could have met Jack Aubrey, had he been real.
These books make the past come alive in a way that is very unusual and hard to do, and they made me start thinking about Jane Austen as I never had before: as a person, not just an author, and wondering what she was like. Because she wasn’t famous in her lifetime, there is a lot we don’t know about her. I found myself wishing there was a way to go back in time and get some answers. It made me sad we couldn’t. Then it struck me that I could — in a story.
Q. How did you go about researching, writing and pitching the book?
I reread all of Jane Austen’s novels; other novels by writers of her time that she would have read; biographies and discussions of her work. I also read to try to get a sense of what life was like then: books about household management and 19th-century cooking, biographies of some other important people of the time.
Eventually I traveled to England, to see the neighborhood where Jane Austen would have stayed in London (unfortunately her brother Henry’s house has been replaced by something larger and Victorian), and some other notable things, like a house museum and this weird museum about the history of medicine. I went to Chawton, where the Jane Austen Museum is in her last house, and to Winchester, where she died.
Although I had read many novels and even attempted to write one earlier, there was a lot to learn: about the architecture of a novel, about how to convey information gracefully, about sentence structure. How to keep going, how to make it all cohere. What to show, what to summarize.
When I finally had a draft that I didn’t completely hate, I did a manuscript workshop. There were five of us, and we all, plus the instructor, read and commented on each other’s novels. This was a big step because I finally had to show it to someone. It was also helpful reading other people’s work, thinking about what worked and didn’t.
I revised it for another year or so after that, and then I started trying to identify agents who might be a good fit and sending them queries. And mostly heard no or nothing.
It’s hard to think about how to describe your own work, how to interest an agent who’s never heard of you and has an inbox full of queries. I was not connected to the literary world at all. How I found my agent was this: I read a recently published novel that I liked very much and learned (by reading the acknowledgements) who the author’s agent was. I emailed him and said: I really loved X, I’ve written this book that is not like X exactly but has these certain similarities, would you consider taking a look?
It’s important to emphasize that all these things were true — I don’t think this approach would work if they weren’t. And that’s no guarantee it would have worked in any case, although it did in mine. Eventually.
Q. You’re a copy editor. What was it like to be edited?
A. It was fascinating and humbling. Naturally, I am a fan of copy editors and believe in the importance of editing.
I imagined I had done a pretty good job with at least that part of it, but the copy editor found several mortifying things I’d missed, including typos, a wrong birth date for a character and a number of dangling modifiers. And HarperCollins has its own house style rules on things like hyphenation, numbers, and the serial comma, which I had repeatedly violated. Everyone needs an editor!
Another cool thing was the “style sheet” they sent to me along with the page proofs. Part of it was a list of words from the book that needed style attention or a ruling of some kind, like capitalization or hyphenation, for consistency.
Reading this list was a strange experience, because the words seemed so odd out of context: banditti (pl), beetroot, bell cord, belowstairs, brickworks, coal smoke, country-gentry (adj), curlpapers, dairymaid. … Another part was a list of the names of all the characters in the book, the page where they first show up, and age and eye color, if mentioned.
This seemed quite obsessive! But also important for consistency. How to remember otherwise, a hundred pages on, if someone had green eyes and now they have blue? It made me realize how copy editing a book must be more challenging than editing even the longest piece of journalism.
Q. What advice do you have for other journalists who want to write fiction?
A. Journalists have some advantages: They are used to working with words, they are sensitive to the power of story, they are used to being edited and being rejected. But most of us tend to think in the short term; it is a big mental adjustment to the long time horizon required to write a novel.
I think writing journalistically is also something we need to overcome. Newspaper prose is functional: Its main aim is clarity and directness, but it can also be clunky. Ideally fiction should be a pleasure to read, with a kind of subtle music created through word choice, variations in sentence length, rhythm. So there are some habits to break, and new ones to get into.
I would advise reading lots of fiction – all kinds, but especially the kind you want to write. Read analytically, thinking about what works and what doesn’t. Get in the habit of writing regularly, and try to find a community of people who are also interested in writing.
One useful piece of advice I came across is that there are two basic ways to keep writing despite discouragement and setbacks: developing a work ethic that keeps you going even though the world does not care or notice, or having an idea that you are so on fire with that you can’t help working on it, because you’d rather do that than anything else. Ideally you’d have both, but sometimes having one is enough for a while, and then you can see your way to the other.